Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 8)

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Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer 1927–

Jhabvala is a novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter who was born in Germany of Polish parents, was educated in England, and has lived primarily in India since 1951. A perceptive, often satiric, observer of Europeans living in India and of the lifestyle of middle-class urban Indians, she portrays with wit and irony both Eastern and Western sensibilities. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Like her last novel, Travellers (and like her seven earlier novels), Ruth Jhabvala's new work [Heat and Dust] is distinguished by a rapier wit and subtlety, in a blend altogether unique to her. Invariably, Mrs. Jhabvala refuses the flat satiric thrust, the temptation to have the last word about her characters settled and done with, however cleverly. Rather, even the most callow-seeming and predictable of them have their moment of expansion and mystery; it is the mark of these characters that they should be, hilariously and unforgettably, both what they seem and yet more. Heat and Dust is set alternately in the India of the Twenties and the present, its main characters Englishmen and women who, like all Mrs. Jhabvala's Western protagonists, find themselves willingly or otherwise on a voyage of discovery in India. Indeed, it is the fate of the Westerners that in their encounter with India they perceive that which, clearly, they would wish not to perceive: that which makes the lives, the assumptions, the loves they already have less tenable than before…. It is, particularly in its delicate chartings of passion and of the growth of consciousness, a superb story, a gift to those who care for the novel, and to the art of fiction itself. (p. 30)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (© 1976 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 3, 1976.

Unlike any other foreign novelist in English, Mrs. Jhabvala writes from within the extended Indian-family structure, an affectionately satiric observer of the conflict between traditional passivity and Westernized ambition within individuals battered by the indifferent tides of change in present-day Indian life. Though there are inescapable echoes of Forster when she writes about the reckless English innocents who these days "come no longer to conquer but to be conquered," her sharpest and most fully realized portraits are those of Indian parents and children, masters and servants, husbands and wives, whom she knows with the unthinking familiarity of an insider, but scrutinizes with the frequently amused detachment of a privileged stranger.

In her most recent work—"Travelers," published in 1973, and the new novel "Heat and Dust," which won the coveted Booker Prize in England—Mrs. Jhabvala has been struggling admirably to break away from the dubious contentments of the minor novelist who prefers not to make things too difficult for herself or her readers, and has tried to place her experience of India in less conventionally realistic, more demanding forms than she chose for her many domestic comedies of manners. In serious writers such deliberate assaults on habit are of course not a matter of esthetic whimsy but a way of coping with a changing point of view, and it is clear that Mrs. Jhabvala's attitudes toward India have been growing more ambivalent. (p. 7)

Mrs. Jhabvala moves nimbly between the two generations and the divergent points of time and sentiment between a vanished English past that was arrogant and unyielding and a venturesome English present that is mainly confused—in brief precipitate scenes, laconic but remarkably evocative…. Writing with austere, emphatic economy, she does not belabor the parallels and dissimilarities between the two levels of narrative—at least not until the very end. Like Forster, she renders the barriers of incomprehension and futility that persist between English and Indians with witty precision….

"Heat and Dust" is an obscure and somber novel, tense with undisclosed judgments and...

(The entire section is 3,019 words.)